District education officials spent much of the summer pledging to meet students’ social and emotional needs upon their return to in-person learning but a growing contingent of teachers have taken to social media and other forums to say that it has been business as usual in the public school system.

One particular qualm centers on data collection mandates and new assessments that teachers of various grades and disciplines have been tasked with giving to students throughout the grading period.

Some teachers, including one who spoke to The Informer on the condition of anonymity, say these assessments, called required curricular tasks (RCTs), haven’t sparked academic growth because they don’t take into account pandemic-related skills gaps.

“Sometimes, students find RCTs frustrating because they’re based on writing articles and we have students who struggle to write their names and sentences,” said the second grade teacher who works at a Southeast-based public school.

In addition to RCTs, regular lessons and small-group interventions, the second grade teacher said DCPS has made them responsible for giving students weekly phonics assessments. Teachers in this position, she said, often have little latitude in changing the test or straying away from a data collection mandate that’s been described as purposeless.

As the Southeast teacher recounted, instructors are encouraged to spend their planning period, not preparing engaging lessons, but uploading testing data onto an online platform that DC Public Schools [DCPS]’ central office can access.

“The RCTs are not meeting them where their skill levels are,” the teacher said. “Our practice has been geared toward completing the writing tasks rather than going through the natural order of the lessons.”

The Debate Surrounding Standardized Tests 

DCPS didn’t respond to The Informer’s inquiry about the long-term plans for RCTs and elements of the data collection process.

RCTs, introduced during virtual instruction last school year, count among several standardized tests given to District public school students. Other assessments include: ANet English and math tests; MAP math and science tests; i-Ready; Reading Inventory; and DIBELS, the phonetic awareness test to which the second grade teacher referred.

These tests, taken throughout the year, eventually snowball into PARCC, the annual assessment that measures students’ college and career preparedness and dictates a school’s standing on the STAR Framework.

During the pandemic, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education [OSSE], at the behest of teachers and parents, secured PARCC’s cancellation.

But over the last few months, Acting State Superintendent Dr. Christina Grant has remained adamant about students taking PARCC and other assessments this school year to measure what has been described as learning loss.

However, some teachers like James Isreal said the focus should be on the social and emotional effects of the pandemic, not additional assessments and data collection. Though Isreal no longer teaches a core subject, which precludes him from doling out RCTs more often, he said he vicariously experiences his colleagues’ apprehension about tackling these tasks while addressing matters often requiring their immediate attention.

James Isreal, Washington Teachers Union vice president for junior high schools (Courtesy photo)

“There are countless physical and verbal altercations that are happening in schools across the District,” said Isreal, a teacher at Hart Middle School in Southeast and Washington Teachers’ Union [WTU] vice president for junior high schools.

“Requiring ALL RCTs to be complete without discretion just to have data when teachers don’t have enough time to really teach the standards to mastery and students are already several academic years behind, just makes the school-to-prison pipeline [more] evident,” he said.

Fighting the Greater Forces at Play 

Laura Fuchs, a District public school teacher of more than a decade, described RCTs and the phenomenon of data collection in DCPS as part of the District’s relationship with the Broad Center, an educational leadership program completed by Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and former DCPS chancellors Antwan Wilson and Kaya Henderson.

Grant’s predecessor, Hanseul Kang, left OSSE earlier this year to lead the Broad Center at the Yale School of Management. This program, financed by philanthropist Eli Broad, has been designed to support education leaders, particularly those running school systems and charter networks, as they endeavor to increase organizational effectiveness.

The degree to which school leaders have been able to do so has been questioned, not only by Fuchs, but her WTU colleagues and those affiliated with the DC Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Over the years, Fuchs has pushed back against what she described as the proliferation of standardized testing and data collection.

Fuchs said tests and data shouldn’t take priority at a time when students, and teachers, are struggling to reacclimate themselves to the school environment, However, despite some attempts by colleagues to circumvent the data collection mandate, Fuchs said there appears to be no signs of change, at least for the time being.

“They love making reports. We have always been getting pressured this way,” said Fuchs, who teaches at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast.

“DCPS has added even more standardized tests. They want to standardize English, math, science and social studies and have a test they can track for some big data reporting company that they pay a bucketload of money to apparently help us fix things by putting numbers in a glorified spreadsheet,” she said.

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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